How typography can make a more inclusive future

Although progress is being made, the type industry still has a long way to go. Here, writer and graphic designer Ray Masaki argues that a more equitable and diverse future of design will rely less on tools and technology and more on the decisions made by type designers.


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Identity coded by Yannick Gregoire.
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Phase by Elias Hanzer.

The future of type design and typography is looking more inclusive and diverse than ever before. Due to the accessibility and relative affordability of modern type design and typesetting software, as well as multilingual support enabled by Unicode standards, the barriers to diverse typographic expression have been lowered over the past few decades.

Unlike the days of meticulously punch cutting single letterforms for metal type (of a single point size, no less), with modern type design software, written languages can now be digitised and designed with relative ease. While access to a more formal type design education is still limited in many parts of the world, the software itself has a much shallower learning curve, which makes it much more possible for one to become a self-taught type designer.

I recently purchased a licence for the type design software Glyphs and I was shocked by how easily I was able to get up to speed over the course of only a handful of Youtube video tutorials. The lack of friction with an out-of-the-box and all-in-one solution to type design was revelatory – personally, I had learned type design using Robofont in 2014 at Type@Cooper, which, while a great piece of software, required a more intimate knowledge of its capabilities and an understanding of the auxiliary tools necessary to make a typeface.

Accessibility towards designing non-Latin scripts, though not quite equal, is steadily evolving and improving as well. Unlike the Latin alphabet, many East Asian character sets (e.g. Chinese and Japanese) necessitate thousands of characters to be usable. The process of designing a Japanese font still requires years of planning, drawing and testing to support the written language’s four character types: Hiragana (phonetic syllabary), Katakana (phonetic syllabary, primarily for loan words), Kanji (ideograms adapted from Chinese Hanzi) and Latin letterforms.

However, workflows have since improved and been accelerated with automation. Checks and revisions are, of course, still necessary, but CJK typefaces can be designed with modular radical components to save precious time and money.

The evolution of type technology has aided in the proliferation of other languages and scripts as well. For example, the development of the OpenType format created new possibilities for a font’s capabilities, including the programming of contextual forms. Before OpenType, languages of the SWANA region like Arabic were roughly constrained to the shape of the em unit and could not fully express the nuances of a calligraphic written language.

Similarly, while it’s fair to criticise what many see as the monopolistic and anti-competitive actions of Adobe, the access and flexibility of multilingual support in their desktop publishing software like InDesign is currently unmatched. As a bilingual graphic designer living and working in Japan, much of my work requires complex typesetting where I combine Latin alphabet fonts with Japanese fonts. Being able to create composite fonts (a feature built into Japanese InDesign) has become a necessary and indispensable part of my work, and allows me to consider new combinations of type choices and layout.

So what’s the issue?

When I mindlessly meander the web and social media, I will often stumble upon many original typefaces of varying degrees of completion and quality. It’s clear that it’s easier than ever to design and distribute a font, and have someone create something with said font, but I often wonder if there’s currently a lack of criticality and cultural sensitivity missing in that process. A future of more inclusive type design and typography, in my opinion, is less about the tools and technology, but more about the unintentional or subconscious decisions that type designers are making around language support.

I see typography and typefaces as the atomic units of the visual language that shapes our world. Typography consciously and subconsciously seeps into every crevice, so I believe there’s a responsibility that comes with creating and using type. This is not necessarily the fault of any one type designer, and I don’t want to suggest that only the most complete typefaces deserve to exist, but when I witness a new designer with a fresh copy of Glyphs selling their first quirky Neo-Grotesk font, it makes me wonder if they are considering the potential ramifications of how their typeface is or isn’t being used. A font is a pretty special piece of software that allows access to a type designer’s taste, aesthetic and thinking, and when language support is limited or designed improperly, the expression that is embedded within also becomes limited to people who are within similar language borders.

This, by extension, means that certain types of typographic visual expression are limited only to typographers who come from similar linguistic backgrounds. In my work, there have been many instances when I would have liked to use a particular font, but after proper testing, found it unsuitable because of a lack of specific character support. This weeding process tangibly shapes my visual output, and while my work is a miniscule drop in the bucket of Japan or the world’s overall visual output, these micro-decisions that are being made by designers every day across the globe build up and calcify the overarching expression of a place and time. It’s hard for me to say that this is all a good or bad thing, but it is the reality of a trend I’ve been witnessing with the growing pool of self-taught type designers.

Fonts are part of a cultural ecosystem that has ways of closing the doors for minority cultures. I did a quick search for “Grotesk” on a well-known font marketplace, which resulted in 5,744 matches. After filtering the results for Vietnamese support, the results dropped to 241, roughly four per cent of the original matches. Designers often hear the tired argument that there’s too many fonts out there, but when you consider that a Vietnamese typographer only has access to four per cent of the same tools, it places into perspective how typographic expression can be stifled by a lack of inclusive thinking.

Approaching more inclusive type design is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s not feasible to ask a designer in Europe to learn Vietnamese on a native level to create proper language support for their typefaces. However, being aware of some of these blindspots is a tangible and necessary goal. I would never attempt typesetting in a language I can’t read or write without support from a native reader/designer, so my hope would be that type designers can use type design as an opportunity to connect with natives of other cultures and languages to create more inclusive tools for everyone. The same way that an Asian type designer considers the Latin counterparts for their CJK typefaces, it makes sense for the opposite to be also true – consideration for global use makes for a more diverse and equitable future of design.

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About the Author

Ray Masaki

Ray Masaki is a Japanese-American graphic designer, writer, and educator in Tokyo who runs Studio RAN. He studied illustration at Parsons School of Design, type design at The Cooper Union, and received an MFA in graphic design from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He teaches at the Professional Institute of International Fashion in Shinjuku, Tokyo. In 2021, Ray published Why is the salaryman carrying a surfboard? — a bilingual book about the history of systemic white supremacy and Westernisation in the Japanese design industry. He is It’s Nice That’s Tokyo correspondent.

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